With 14 students and two teachers from Italy spending a week in Scarsdale from Sept. 15-23, the final COVID-19 barrier facing schools — international travel — has been cleared. As hundreds of students will be permitted to go abroad for the first time in three years, Scarsdale High School is preparing to resume its music and exchange travel programs in February 2023.
“It’s so much work and it was all that work with the hope that it would happen,” Scarsdale global opportunities coordinator Heather Waters said. “I think it’s a real sign that we’re getting back to normalcy. The kids and families are so ripe for travel, so this is the real last checkpoint that we’re moving on.”
Waters has been planning the exchange with Educandato Statale Uccellis in Italy, and soon the high school will send 21 students to live with and experience life with their Italian counterparts before spending a week touring Florence and Rome on their own as a group.
“The goal is for them to have a more global understanding, to see what it’s like to be a teen somewhere else and a different school system,” Waters said. “It’s part of our ultimate goal of global citizenship, of producing global citizens. They develop empathy skills, they develop broader understanding of lots of things and they kind of find themselves as they’re exploring a different culture.”
With travel halted, Waters pivoted to connecting students around the world online through various programs, including the Global Entrepreneurship Challenge.
“The last few years we sort of reinvented in the moment … we were in a couple of networks and we created some virtual experiences where kids will take a current issue and talk with kids from around the world,” Waters said. “The next one coming up is Ukraine in Crisis. The last one was on LGBTQ Changemakers. There were kids from across the nation and across the world. It’s all about getting them out of their little box and hearing other perspectives. It prepares them well for when they leave us and go on to college or a gap year or whatever.”
Michela Boscutti has been leading programs for Educandato Statale Uccellis for a decade. Having the students meet virtually while they awaited the ability to travel helped them connect in advance over some heavy issues before they could get to know each other on a social and personal level.
“From my experience it stays with them as an unforgettable moment in their education,” Boscutti said. “It’s not tourism, it’s not mobility of any other kind. To go into a family and call these people mom, dad, brother, sister, they bond with these families. For many of them, the majority of my kids, it was their first time in the United States. For one of the boys who lives in a small village in the mountains, it was [his] first long flight. It was a lot of experience in one week, a lot to process.”
Some of the students from Italy experienced their first Shabbat ceremony in Scarsdale.
“There aren’t many Jewish families where we live and they really didn’t know anything about it, so they’ve come across something culturally that is very unknown to them,” Boscutti said.
Since there hadn’t been announcements about exchange programs since the pandemic hit, many families didn’t even know it was something the high school offered. Once Eliza Goldban heard about it last spring as a sophomore, she entered the lottery to host and travel because she knew it was something special.
“It’s good to experience different cultures in the world through the people who live there, which is really cool,” Goldban said. “It makes you realize they’re not so different even though they live so far away from you.
“It’s definitely nice we’ll be able to stay in contact and it’s nice that I’m going to know [this student] already when I go to live with her in Italy. I’m looking forward to seeing their school and her everyday life, meeting her family and friends …”
Eliza’s mom, Jenny Goldban, was also wowed by the experience.
“These kids were so smart and so fluent and curious,” Jenny said. “It was a pleasure to learn about their lives. I think it took a lot of pressure off the Americans who are going there in February because it’s a little nerve-wracking to live with a family in a foreign country. Now they feel like they’re friends and they’ll be visiting people they know, which is great. It just teaches so many life lessons and expands your horizons in a way that you can’t by sitting in school.”
Italian student Anna, who turns 17 soon, said the exchange program is “a very famous” part of her high school’s experience, which got delayed by the pandemic. She was elated to finally get the chance to come to Scarsdale and she stayed with the Goldbans.
“This year when they told us we could go, we were excited to do this experience after COVID,” Anna said. “It was the excitement of the moment.”
Educandato Statale Uccellis is very different from SHS. The class of 15 students spends five years of school together, does not switch rooms for class in a much smaller building — the teachers come to them — and the school has different types of subjects with fewer unique electives.
“The similarities are that Americans are very friendly people, as are Italians, and also we’re so warm and friendly and open-minded,” Anna said. “As human beings they are very similar to us.”
Living with the Goldban family and spending her time with junior Eliza Goldban and her two sisters, Anna was welcomed into the family as the fourth sibling.
“I can’t wait for her to meet my family,” Anna said. “I think that she will have some fun. We already know each other. It will be strange for her to see school our way. We do a lot of subjects in English and in German and she will really be able to see how school works there. I think it’s really like a different world. Also, because of our relationship with our teachers — we have a great relationship with our teachers, but there is a distance between us and the teachers. During my time here I saw people calling the teachers with their first name, but in Italy this won’t happen. You have to call them by their surname.”
Anna walked away from the Scarsdale trip more confident.
“I also learned how different a lifestyle can be for a student my age and as far as I see, the teenagers have the same problems if they’re from Italy or if they’re from the U.S. or Canada,” she said. “We have the same problems, problems with parents, the same taste in music, the fact that we don’t know what we want for the future. We have a lot in common.”
Italian student Veronica, who turned 17 this week, said her “once in your life” week in Scarsdale was “so lovely.”
“This age is perfect for doing it because it’s like the age in which you start to know the world, you get in touch with tons of people, and also my family was really kind and patient with me,” she said. “I felt as if I were home.”
The host families had opportunities to take the visiting students to sporting events and Broadway shows, while the greater group had a chance to tour New York City together where they saw Grand Central Station, the 9/11 Memorial and the Stock Exchange, and took the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. “For a 16-year-old girl out with friends in New York, I don’t have words to describe the emotions I felt when I was there,” Veronica said.
Educandato Statale Uccellis, which is in a provincial area that is an hour from ski areas and the seaside, will reciprocate with a trip to Venice in February.
“To visit Venice with us [will be] different — looking at it through the eyes of people who live nearby,” Boscutti said. “All of our families are eager to share as much as possible about our region, our traditions, our culture, our way of life.”
Waters is excited about the lifelong friendships that are being created.
“It’s an amazing program and we’re ecstatic that it’s happening,” she said. “It really hits the district WIDE [well-being, inclusion, diversity and equity initiative] about inclusion and diversity and really understanding about yourself — and the whole school is involved. They’re going to classes, they’re meeting more kids. People are giddy that this is happening. We’re happy to offer it.”
In five months, the favor will be returned.
“I’m looking forward for all of them to come,” Veronica said. “I’m getting prepared for them already. I hope they will have fun. We’ll find some activities to do all together and with our family as well. I hope there will be time to get to know each other even better. I’m so excited.”